Tampa, FL – We had them right where we wanted them, and we let ‘em off the hook.
Despite building a two-goal lead early in the second period, the Minnesota Gophers (29-10-1) couldn’t score that next goal to put the Quinnipiac Bobcats (34-4-3) away for good. Quinnipiac mounted a furious charge after the second Gopher goal, outshooting Minnesota 26-8 after the first period and potting three unanswered goals, the last just 10 seconds into overtime, to win their first national championship 3-2.
The first period was a strong one for Minnesota, with John Mittelstadt scoring 5:35 into the opening frame off a turnover pickup by Connor Kurth. Kurth rushed the puck around the Bobcat net and found Mittelstadt in front on a wrap-around pass. The 5:35 goal gave the Gophers an early lead, and by the end of one it was 1-0 with a 7-4 shot advantage for the Maroon and Gold.
The Gophers scored again early in the second, when Jaxon Nelson tipped home a Brock Faber shot from the point at 4:24. 2-0 against a defensive team early in the second, things are looking good, right?
Not so fast, my friend. From then on, the Bobcats blitzed the Gophers, with Minnesota playing not to lose instead of to put the game away. Quinnipiac answered back at 7:41 of the second when Christophe Tellier beat Justen Close on a cross-ice tip in the crease to get within one at 2-1.
The Gophers tried to play bend-but-don’t-break defense the rest of the way, and it almost worked. As it turns out, there’s going to be lots of discussion why the coaches tried to manage the game the way that they did.
Up just one goal in the third period, the Gophers were outshot 14-2 in the final frame. Quinnipiac pulled their goalie with about four minutes left on the power play, and were able to score just after the penalized Logan Cooley left the box to tie the game at 2-2 and send it into OT.
On the opening face off of overtime, the Bobcats used a designed play to spring a player free up the left wing. In about the only odd-man chance the Bobcats had all game, Jacob Quillan beat his check and soared through the crease with the puck, beating Close just 10 seconds into the extra session to win it for Quinnipiac by a 3-2 score.
There’s no sugar-coating it: this one is going to hurt for a while. The Gophers had a two-goal lead in the national championship game, and they chose to pack it in and play prevent defense for 35 minutes of play. It is reasonable to ask why the coaching staff thought that was a winning strategy, when it seems like the Gophers could have attempted to play some offense, or at least maintain possession to relieve pressure every now and then.
At the end, though, only one team can win, and hats off to the Bobcats. I’m not sure I’ve seen enough of Quinnipiac to definitively say that they were the best team in the country this year, but they sure played the best game on the ice between these two teams tonight, and they were a deserving champion.
Unfortunately now, all eyes turn to the guys who are on their way out. We know that most of the all-world defensive corps is leaving: Ryan Johnson and Jackson LaCombe are expected to sign along with junior captain Brock Faber. The Gophers have seniors in Bryce Brodzinski and Jaxon Nelson that have another year of COVID eligibility, and it’s unclear whether they’ll be back or not. Same with senior goalie Justen Close. Underclassmen Logan Cooley and Matthew Knies don’t yet know whether they’ll sign, but smart money seems to be on both of them being gone. Most people expect freshman Jimmy Snuggerud to stay in school at least one more year.
This is always my least favorite article to write, both because the season is over and because it’s the last time this version of this team will get to play together. This is a group that won the Big Ten by 19 points, but let it all slip away when it mattered most. It’s hard to know what kind of legacy this group will have, but I can tell you that, apart from this last couple hours as I sit here after the game, I’ve enjoyed the hell out of watching them.
The frozen four is in St. Paul next year. Let’s hope next year’s Gopher team is there, too.